Simplicity In Your Pocket

(Or, Why the iPhone is Minimalist)

Dave Caolo rolls out his new, practical 52 Tiger with a post on how to de-clutter your iPhone. It’s a good article with simple strategies for keeping your device clean and tidy. A personal favorite:

I like to keep the bottom row icon-free. This habit developed when I bought the original iPhone years ago, and there was a dearth of apps for it. Since then, I’ve always keep that bottom row empty. It looks nice and provides an obvious lane for swiping back and forth.

I’ve been keeping my bottom row free since I got my iPhone 3G, and I find it makes a world of difference in how calm my home screen looks and feels.

Still, as with all Apple products, the iPhone itself is designed with focus and simplicity in mind so you don’t have to actively think about keeping it clutter-free.

From a software point of view, iOS has a uniform design; everything is consistent across each screen. Every icon is the same shape and style, and they’re all organized into a neat grid in the order of your choosing.

A friend once asked me to fix one of the icons on her Android phone, which was inexplicably out-of-line with the others. I tried several things, but the icon refused to conform with the grid. Staring at one rogue icon all the time would drive me nuts. Fortunately, the iPhone makes it impossible to have a messy home screen. Even if you have the maximum twenty icons or an entire page of folders, they’re still neatly arranged and offer a soothing user experience.

Dave also suggests being ruthless about which apps you keep on your device. I generally don’t keep apps that I might need “someday” for the precise reasons Dave describes: Re-downloading an app from the App Store is simple and free, and iOS 5 will save my app data even when I remove unused apps. Quick and painless.

Any self-respecting nerd will tell you home screen organization is a science. A judicious approach to app selection allows me to only have two screens-worth of icons. My home screen contains my most used apps, and the second screen contains folders for games, reading, utilities, and apps I’m intrigued by or experimenting with. This setup keeps all my apps only a swipe or tap away and protects me from having to dig through pages and pages of icons to find what I’m looking for.

Of course, the iPhone’s minimalist design is not only limited to software. The hardware itself is also clean and free of any extraneous buttons, keyboards, or trackballs. The iPhone’s Home button, for example, has a single function: return to the home screen. Its simplicity allows virtually any user to be able to navigate the phone within seconds. There’s practically no learning curve; if you’ve pressed it once, you’ve mastered it. This ease-of-use is what enabled my grandmother to look up something on Wikipedia despite having never owned a computer.

“But it’s so expensive!” you protest. “How can can something so expensive be considered minimalist?”

You could certainly make an argument that a free flip-phone is more minimalist than an iPhone, but this brings me to the issue of quality.

I’m a fairly ardent minimalist, but I agree with Marco Arment on this issue:

If you sit on, sleep on, stare at, or touch something for more than an hour a day, spend whatever it takes to get the best.

Why? Well:

  1. Quality lasts longer. You can buy something cheap that will need to be frequently replaced, or you can buy a high-end item that will serve you well into the future. My iPhone 4 is fifteen months old — forever in technology years — and it still seems brand new.
  2. Quality feels better. I love using my iPhone. I don’t get frustrated with it because I can’t figure out how to do something or because something isn’t working properly. That’s one less source of stress in my life.
  3. Quality inspires you. My MacBook Pro is so enjoyable to use that I actually want to write posts with it. My iPad makes me want to read articles, essays, and novels. I don’t dread using these devices, so they actually allow me to get more done. Could I get by on a phone that just makes calls? Yes, but I’m a nerd, and I need more than that. Maybe not as a human, but as Andrew Marvin, I need to be able to read the latest news and check Twitter and play a game here and there because those things make me happy.

Everyday, the iPhone makes my life simpler and easier. I don’t have to carry a dictionary around with me. I don’t have to wait until I’m at a computer to send a quick email. I don’t need to buy a GPS for my car or a pedometer for exercising. I don’t need to keep a planner or a book with me all the time. The iPhone simplifies all of these areas in my life, which in turn makes me more productive, calmer, and happier.